Surfing: The Ultimate Water Sport
October 9, 2011
Surfing is the most primal and elemental of all water sports. It is among the most thrilling, most difficult, and, if you ask the surfers themselves, most spiritual of all sports. It is also one of the oldest. Surfing is one of the few sports to boast both an ancient and a modern history. That, combined with the details, techniques, and culture of the sport itself, makes surfing a fascinating activity that millions of people do every day all over the world, and millions more long to try for themselves.
The History of Surfing
Though there is some debate, the first surfers were probably residents of modern-day Peru who lived around 2000 years ago. These ancient Peruvians, who lived before the European conquest of South America, and even before the rise of the great Incan civilization, would practice surfing by riding the waves of the Pacific Ocean off their northern coast using boats made of reeds. These boats, made from the reeds of the totora plant and known as Caballitos de Totora in modern Spanish (literally "little reed horses" in English), were straddled by their riders and paddled out into the surf, much as modern surfers still do when entering the water.
Surfing was also developed by the ancient Polynesians. This early form of surfing seems to have had more in common with modern surfing than the Peruvian version, though both sports were essentially the same, with some distinctions of craft and technique.
To the Polynesians, especially those who colonized the northeastern point of the Polynesian Triangle to become the first Hawaiians, surfing was not just a sport. It was a central, deeply important aspect of their culture. Surfing was an art, and those who could do it well were made leaders of their societies. Traditionally, the chief was consider to be the best surfer (or wave rider) of his community, and was provided with the best board made from the highest quality wood available.
Ancient Hawaiians called their form of surfing "wave sliding," and everything from the selection of the tree from which the wood for the board would be taken, to the construction of the board, to the actual riding of the waves, was considered an essential aspect of the art to be practiced.
Three types of trees were typically used to make surfboards in ancient Hawaii: the koa, the 'ulu, and the wiliwli. A surfer would select his tree, dig it out of the ground himself, and fill the hole where it stood with fish as an offering to the gods. The tree was then turned over to a skilled craftsman, who was responsible for shaping it into a surfboard.
There were also three types of surfboards: the 'olo, which had a thick middle that gradually tapered off toward the ends; the kiko'o, a board that could be as long as 18-feet and took great skill to maneuver in the water; and the alaia, another long board (up to 9 feet) requiring great skill to master. These last two types of boards were usually reserved for the upper class, the chiefs and warriors, who were considered the most skilled surfers of their communities.
Surfing was a spiritual experience to the ancient Hawaiians, and surfers would be blessed by priests before entering the ocean. Surfers would also appeal to priests (known as kahunas in the language of the Hawaiians) to bless the surf and pray for some good waves to ride.
Surfing remained popular in Hawaii over the centuries, but never caught on in the United States until the early 20th century, when George Freeth visited California and began giving surfing demonstrations. Freeth, a half-Hawaiian/half-Irish native of Oahu, came to Huntington Beach, California, in 1907 to demonstrate surfing as part of the opening festivities for a new railroad. Following that demonstration, he traveled up and down the California coast, demonstrating surfing and teaching lifeguard skills. Freeth is considered by most historians to be the first modern surfer.
Several years after Freeth brought surfing to the U.S., Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku' demonstrated surfing in Sydney, Australia. As a result of the efforts of Duke Kahanamoku' and George Freeth, the popularity of surfing began to grow, with modern surfing culture thriving in three Pacific regions: Hawaii, California, and Australia.
In the 1960s surfing finally broke through and became a phenomenon of popular culture. Popular beach party movies and the music of bands like the Safaris and the Beach Boys brought surfing culture to the masses, resulting in an explosion in interest in surfing that has continued, at various levels of popularity, through to the present day.
The Art and Sport of Surfing
Surfing has evolved over the centuries into a sport with as many specific terms and techniques as any other sport. Dedicated surfers are not just wave-riders. They are experts on the causes and types of waves, weather patterns, and masters of a dizzying series of maneuvers necessary to successful surfing.
Waves are caused by wind blowing over the surface of the water. The best waves, swell waves, are caused by winds blowing consistently across the surface of open water. If there is also a moderate wind blowing into the oncoming wave from the short, this creates a barrel or tube wave. Tube waves are considered ideal for surfing. Most surfers long to ride the tube, and consider these the ideal waves.
Waves are classified by their shape and their speed. Depending on its length-to-width ratio, a wave can be square, round or almond. Depending on its speed, a wave can be slow, medium or fast. Popular surfing locations tend to have one particular combination of shape and speed of waves predominate, since a wave's shape and speed are largely determined by the topography of the sea floor beneath it. For example, G-Land, the world-renowned surf break in Indonesia, is known for fast, square waves. Australia's Angourie Point, on the other hand, typically features slow, almond waves.
Maneuvers and Terms
Many common surfing maneuvers and parts of surfer terminology have become well known, if not well understood, in popular culture. For example, the terms "hang ten" and "wipe out" are widely used and associated with surfing, but few know their origin or what they actually mean.
"Wipe out" refers to a surfer being knocked from the board while riding a wave, but it is not the only term used to describe falling off the board. A surfer is said to "go over the falls" when he falls off the board and is pulled along with the wave in a circular motion. This is also called being caught in the wash cycle.
"Hanging ten" is a maneuver performed when surfing on a longboard, when the surfer is able to stand on the nose of his board with the toes of both feet hanging over the end. One can also hang five, with one foot on the nose of the board, or face backward and hang heels.
Becoming a Surfer
Surfing is something many people long to do. As a result, many famous surf breaks and beaches actually have surf schools. Novices are typically taught the basics of surfing on longboards, which are considered the easiest type of surfboard to master. Essential skills and techniques are taught either one-on-one, or in a class setting. Either way, it is possible for most people who want to learn to become skilled enough to enjoy surfing for themselves. But not everyone will have the drive, the determination, the spiritual connection to the water in order to follow in the footsteps of those ancient Peruvians and Polynesians and truly master the sport and the art of surfing.